Sermon May 12, 2019
Our family took a trip to New Zealand when our daughter was a child. I still remember being told that 3 million people lived in New Zealand and there were 30 million sheep. Sheep outnumbered people ten to one. Well, times have changed. It seems that the population of New Zealand has grown to well over four million people while the number of sheep has grown only a little. Now there are only about 7 sheep for every person in New Zealand. There are lots of sheep in New Zealand. I also remember a time when our bus was stopped for about ten minutes as a herd of sheep gradually moved their way across the road. We got out of the bus and found lambs that looked like such cuddly little animals. I am not sure I saw a shepherd. The sheep in New Zealand seem to run in big herds and follow each other wherever they go.
I contrast that with my imagination of what shepherding is like in the Middle East. I picture much smaller flocks of sheep perhaps 20 and all of them are being led by one shepherd. I am sure they have a much closer relationship with the shepherd than the sheep in New Zealand.
The image of a single shepherd fits our lessons for today. We are told that the followers of Jesus hear his voice. Jesus knows them and they know Jesus. It is true whether the number of sheep is small or so large they cannot be counted.
I read a story this week about a young priest who was staying at the bishop’s house. The bishop had three dogs. When the bishop arrived home each day he would call out to the dogs and they would run to see him. The young priest decided to play a trick on the dogs. He learned to mimic the voice of the bishop. He came home just a few minutes before the bishop, called the dogs just as the bishop would do and they came running. Of course they were disappointed when they found out he was not the bishop. He tried this again and got the same result. But the third time he tried to trick the dogs, they did not respond. They had learned how to differentiate the voice of the bishop from the voice of the young priest. Animals are quite smart when it comes to whom they know and care for. It only took them a few times to realize the young priest was a fake.
Just as the dogs know the voice of the master and just as the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, so we know the voice of Jesus. We know Jesus because he loves us and because he teaches us and because he sacrificed himself for us. Perhaps most important, Jesus knows each of us by name. Those are the words we hear in the Collect for today and they come from the words of Jesus himself. He said to those who questioned him that he knows his sheep, his followers. Jesus is our personal shepherd and he walks alongside us on our path.
The image of Jesus as our shepherd follows a long tradition of referring to the powerful, especially kings and the Lord as our shepherd. There is no better example than we find in Psalm 23. It is one of the most beloved of Psalms for it gives great comfort. Psalm 23 begins with the words the Lord is my Shepherd. Jesus referred to God as his father and he said that he and the father are one. Just as God is our shepherd so Jesus, his son, is our shepherd.
The comforting image of the shepherd continues throughout Psalm 23. God will take care of all of our needs. God will give us rest when we are tired. God will guide us along the right paths. God will help us deal with our fear. God will provide refreshing water for us to drink and help us to restore our strength. God will see to it that we are given a banquet of food to nourish us. God will make sure that we are surrounded by goodness and mercy.
We have several references to God’s comforting presence in our lives. While no one can actually replace God in our lives, for most of us, our mother comes close. So many of us remember our mother as someone who loved and cared for us, who encouraged us when we were down and who helped us to achieve all that we accomplished. Perhaps your mother sacrificed something to make your life better in some way. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the ladies who are here with us today whether you were able to be a mother to a child or simply a help to someone who was close to you.
I find it interesting that this same Jesus who is our Shepherd is also referred to as the lamb. In the reading from Revelation, Jesus takes his rightful place on the throne. Jesus is worshipped and glorified by all those who are in heaven. And yet this Jesus is called the Lamb. We think of the Lamb as the weakest of creatures and yet here is the Lamb enthroned in the highest heaven. The same God who is the all powerful one, the Creator of heaven and earth, also chose to humble himself. It helps us to understand that God will do anything to save us. Even in this reading from Revelation, Jesus is referred to as both the Lamb and the Shepherd. We realize that power does not always come from strength. Power can also comes from sacrifice, and from loving one another.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is questioned by a group of non-believers. Somehow, they want him to prove that he is the Messiah. Jesus said I have already told you and shown you. He suggested to them that they remember all of the miracles that he had performed. But then he explained why they had a problem. They were not his sheep. They were not followers of his.
We follow Jesus in faith. These last few weeks, we have experienced a lot of Scripture references about faith. It seems that we are once more confronted with how so much of our spiritual lives begin in faith, begin in trust. The non-believers could not be swayed by the things they had seen. Somehow, they needed Jesus to satisfy their own personal curiosity, to answer their own particular question or to fit into their own specific understanding of how God works in this world.
But Jesus doesn’t always fit into the accepted understanding of God. He is the Shepherd who has become the Lamb. Jesus changed the way that we understood a Messiah. He showed us that truth and love and mercy can be given to us by the one who sacrificed himself for us.
I would suggest that we the believers see Jesus as Divine because we began our understanding of Scripture with faith. Our hearts were opened to see Jesus as he was and is. We know that people often begin with the opposite perspective. Someone with a preconceived idea of the truth finds it difficult to have their mind changed because new facts don’t fit their understanding of reality. The doubters who questioned Jesus must have been like that.
In our faith, we want to be guided by our Shepherd, Jesus. We want to be known by him and we want to know him. We reach out in our desire to have that close relationship with Jesus so that when he calls, we know it is him. We want to feel the comfort of being known by Jesus, to never be forgotten regardless of where we have been or what we have done. We want Jesus to come and find us when we are lost. We want Jesus to send all of our fears away.
This week, I encourage you to just let the words of Scripture sink in. If you walk away with nothing other than the one line that is found in the gospel you will be fine. Please hear these words, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. They will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”. Our faith accepts this as truth. If you hear and accept those words today then you will understand why Jesus said. “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” For it is in faith that we become his sheep. It is in faith that we are known personally by Jesus. Amen.
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